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Running steam in the 21st century is a challenge. On June 22, I was the conductor of the 4:30 steam excursion pulled by steam locomotive 93. We have been having axle troubles with 93 for a while, not unexpected on a ninety-eight year old locomotive. Halfway through the trip at Keystone, the engine crew stopped the locomotive to check the axle temperature. On this particular run axle 2 was hot. We stopped again at Lane City, which is only a few miles away, and the temperature on 2 had shot up again.

We decided to leave 93 at the Lane City siding and have a diesel bring the train home. After the axle had cooled, 93 limped home. The next couple of days we tried all of the possible fixes that had worked in the past and nothing would work now. The decision was made to drop the axle.

Lowering an axle is not a decision to be taken lightly. This is not like changing a flat tire on a car. To lower an axle, all of the rods need to come off, that is obvious. What isn’t so obvious is that there is what seems to be one hundred other parts that also need to be removed to lower an axle.

After successfully lowering the axle, it was like opening Pandora’s Box. The short version is that once we lowered the axle we found that the crown brasses on both sides of the axle were worn out. Crown brasses are the bearings that an axle rides in. The crown brass sits in a bearing box that is held in place in the locomotive’s frame. In 93’s case, we have four axles, eight crown brasses, and eight bearing boxes, so essentially each crown brass carries one-eighth of the weight of the locomotive. Locomotive 93 weighs 187,000 pounds. So each crown brass needs to carry 23,375 pounds or almost 12 tons.

For this to successfully work, the bearing surface and the axle surface needs to be smooth. Any roughness will cause friction, which causes heat. If the heat gets too high very bad things happen, so that’s why the engine crew monitors axle temperatures. Through the course of time, sand and grit get sucked up into the crown brasses and start grinding causing a rough surface. The rough surface causes the friction.

Upon lowering axles 2, we found that one of the crown brasses was actually pinching the axle and the other one was cracked. As mentioned earlier, the crown brasses sit in a driving box. And we found that one of the driving boxes was cracked.

And this was just the beginning. While examining the running gear, we found problems in the spring rigging throughout the locomotive. This was not entirely unexpected—after all the locomotive is ninety-eight years old. But what was surprising was the severity of the problems with the spring rigging.

Our initial plan was to just make repairs to axle 2. But as we got deeper into the locomotive, we found more things that needed repairs. We could just repair axle 2 and turn a blind-eye to the other problems. But this is a penny-wise pound-foolish solution. If we did this, there is no guarantee that 93 wouldn’t be down again in a week or a month with problems with axle 4 or 3 or 1 and there was the spring rigging to consider.

What we need to do is lower all four axles, examine the crown brasses and driving boxes, and make repairs as required to all four axles and the spring rigging. This will be an expensive proposition in two ways: first, the locomotive will be down until mid-January and the cost of the repairs themselves may top $100,000; second, we have advertised steam daily, starting now, but we will have no choice but to cut back on steam operations. Having our other steam locomotive pick up all of the slack is unacceptable. This would put too much stress and strain on locomotive 40 with the end result being both of our steam locomotives going down. So we will be dropping midweek steam and operating steam from Friday afternoon through Monday.

As it is now, our bottom line will be adversely affected. Without daily steam and with high gas prices we’ll have a dip in ridership. (I already witnessed it on our first day without steam, six people decided not to ride because there was no steam.) We had also planned a photo shoot in September, which I think we will need to cancel. And our worse case scenario is that 40 could go down at any time and we would be without steam at all.

The prudent thing to do is to just take our lumps this year and have a stronger locomotive for the next year. But you need to understand that the 93 won’t be perfect once these repairs are made. Repairs are still needed for the cylinders and valves. These will now be put off until fall 2008.

All is not black. There is a bright spot in all of the gloom. The bright spot is that we can do the repairs ourselves. This wasn’t possible in the past. If this had happened three or four years ago, we would have truly been in dire straits. First, we would not have had the expertise or the equipment to do these repairs. Second, we couldn’t have afforded it. We would have had to call in consultants and the price of the repairs would have snowballed. This would have put 93 down and it would have seriously affected our future.

Now we should be able to do the majority of the work ourselves. The skills and knowledge in doing the work will stay here. Tremendous strides have been made over the past five years, basically because of the revenue generated by 93. Now those strides will be put to the test. As we get into the repairs, I’ll keep you posted.

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Sunday | 8AM - 4PM

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1100 Ave A, Ely, NV 89301

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